All conversation in the Tour de France caravan on Thursday evening seemed to revolve around the whys and wherefores of Chris Froome's footrace on Mont Ventoux, but the moving citadel awoke on Friday morning to find that the woes of real world had breached its walls.
The terrorist atrocity in Nice on Thursday night immediately rendered debates over the race jury's decision to amend the standings at Chalet Reynard utterly inconsequential. Eighty-four victims were slain while enjoying Bastille Day celebrations in one of France's great cities and as Friday dawned, it was hard to summon the enthusiasm for the Great Bike Race and its moving festival.
An hour or so before the first starter in Friday's time trial, Sam Bennett (Bora-Argon 18) rolled down the start ramp, however, Tour de France organiser ASO confirmed that the race would continue despite the state of emergency 100 miles to the south and the state of mourning across the nation.
"We wondered about having a race today or not. But in agreement with the state authorities, we believe that the race must go on and we shouldn't give in to the pressure of the people who would like us to change our lifestyle," director Christian Prudhomme said in the start village in Bourg-Saint-Andéol. "The Tour de France will go on in sobriety and dignity."
For some, the decision to continue was an act of defiance in the face of adversity. In practical terms, the French authorities were keen to prevent any further dissemination of panic. The Tour de France is as much a part of the French summer as sunshine and Bastille Day fireworks. The thousands who gathered on the roadside came out to applaud the riders, but will also have found reassurance in their very presence.
Bourg-Saint-Andéol was hosting the Tour for the first time and the village was festooned celebrating the race's arrival, but the atmosphere was flat. With no music blaring from the loudspeakers or the publicity caravan, riders were greeted with polite applause rather than the usual raucous cheering.
"We're in the festive context of the Tour de France but we have to put that into perspective in light of what's happened in Nice," Ag2r-La Mondiale manager Vincent Lavenu said. "In the end, the decision was taken to continue with the stage and I think that's a good thing. Terrorism must not win. I think there'll be a spirit of solidarity among the riders after what has happened. We must not be afraid."
On the wind-buffeted 37.5-kilometre course, the riders of the Tour proceeded to go about their business as best they could, and at the finish in La Caverne du Pont-d'Arc, riders and reporters alike seemed uneasy about discussing the minutiae of something as trivial as a bike race in such a context. Only one supporter, stripped to his briefs and blowing repeatedly from a vuvuzela seemed out of harmony with the prevailing atmosphere at the finish line.
The stage winner Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin), by contrast, was keenly aware of the context in which he was competing and spoke eloquently on the matter. On crossing the line, a French television station asked his opinion of the course but his first thoughts were instead for the victims in Nice.
"It's important to say something really bad happened last night. I woke up to the news from last night, it's very sad," Dumoulin said. "But I think the decision to race today was a very just one. It's horrific what happened but I think we cannot let terrorists decide on our way of living."
Dumoulin's teammate Warren Barguil echoed his thoughts when he came home among the final tranche of starters. "I've lived in Nice and I know a lot of people down there, they enjoy life there. If I wasn't at the Tour, I could have been there myself," Barguil said. "But we have to keep living. We can't give in to these imbeciles."
Minute of silence
The podium ceremony at the Tour is normally an excitable affair, with the successors to long-term speaker Daniel Mangeas admirably continuing his tradition of breathlessly describing the scene as the jerseys and bouquets are handed over. The usual festivities were curtailed on Friday evening, however, with the four jersey wearers – Chris Froome (Sky), Peter Sagan (Tinkoff), Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal) and Adam Yates (Orica-GreenEdge) – joining the stage winner Dumoulin on the podium.
Flanked by Prudhomme and former Tour winners Bernard Hinault and Bernard Thevenet, they stood with heads bowed for an impeccably observed minute of silence. On a typical day at the Tour, the finish area reverberates to shouting and cheering, to claxons and sirens and blaring music.
As the shadows began to lengthen in La Caverne du Pont-d'Arc on Friday, the only sound was that of the finish line banners fluttering in the wind. After a minute, the silence was broken by soft applause.
"I'm happy with how the day went for me but my thoughts are with all of those who were affected by last night," said Froome, who cemented his lead atop the overall standings but declined to answer questions on the race after the finish. "You could feel the atmosphere today and it puts everything in perspective."
In the mixed zone, Adam Yates stood in the white jersey trying to put a complicated afternoon into words for television reporters. "It's a horrible situation and my prayers and wishes go out to all of the families," he said. "Today we had a job to do and we went out and did it."
The stage winner Dumoulin dutifully lingered for the longest and summed up the sentiments the occasion inspired. On a trying day, the Tour had a worthy spokesman in the articulate Dutchman.
"Cycling gets a little bit less important on a day like this and I think that's normal," Dumoulin said. "It's only right that the race is completely overshadowed by the news from Nice."
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